Wednesday, 24 February 2010

End of the Rail Road

Almost a year to the day and here we are in London again, this time for good. Grounded. For the immediate future at least. We were back in January for a couple of weeks and then we were off again, this time to pay a visit to family and friends in Zimbabwe.

The plan to visit Zimbabwe was hatched late one night in a small room in Sala Thai, our humble but clean accommodation in Bangkok. It was a room about the size of a young child's shoe box with one window that overlooked a nondescript concrete wall. I miss it though, with it's ubiquitous and abundant street food and markets nearby. We were chatting about this and that and mostly about what we had been missing whilst we were away. For some people we talked to along the way, it was cheese, others, having a cupboard and some, shock horror, it was family. We fell into this last category and Nipun was quick to convince me that it was time to go back home before we started work again and had limited leave. After all, a twelve month trip like we have just done equates very roughly to twelve years worth of annual leave. We are not likely to have that opportunity very often. So a plan was hatched. In essence it was to arrive in Harare without telling my mum. She would then pop over to see my brother for an impromptu breakfast and discover us there, waiting laden with tales and gifts. A brilliant idea at the time, but then my mum is a septuagenarian and the hearts in our family are about as reliable as Skoda's.
Our flight therefore was quite an anxious one. "I really hope my brother has a stethoscope" was one thought that cropped up along the way. Air Zimbabwe was not big on in-flight diversions either. At the front of the plane, replacing the old projector screen, was a picture of Victoria Falls. The old joke on Youtube came to mind, "We are sorry there are no movies on the flight, somebody at head office forgot to press record on the VHS last night." I jokingly asked the flight attendant what was lined up for the evening. "Tonight, my friend, you will have a live performance" he laughed. It turned out that this performance consisted of being served dinner, with the encore taking the form of teas and coffees. Having said that though the flight was brilliant and half the price of flying to Harare via South Africa. The staff were an absolute hoot and the food was good and the drink plentiful.

Upon arriving we were met by my brothers who whisked us back home and everything went more or less according to plan. My mum arrived and my little niece spilt the beans ever so slightly by making mention of Aunty Nipun (of which you'll be surprised to know there are not that many), but this was probably a good thing. My mum came running onto the verandah, blue eyes agog and with a smile more radiant than the sun. It was a very special moment. And from there on it seems that the clock was ticking. The time flew. During our stay we made it as far as Lake Chivero (an hour outside town) and Nyanga (the Eastern Highlands which lie about three hours away from Harare). It is pathetic and sad to say but our plans to get to Victoria Falls, Mana Pools and Lake Kariba came to naught. We stayed more or less entirely in Harare. It was family time, and it was entirely worth it.

In terms of observations of Harare, it is much changed yet exactly the same since the last time I went back. For example upon arriving we followed a police car with one brake light and a shattered windscreen down a pot holed road from the airport. The officer driving looked like a competent bully but as physically fit as a pie eating competitor. So, the police remain to be incompetent ogres and there are no improvements there then. The changes though were a little more profound. The currency is entirely based in US dollars, which seems unusual for a country which has US Sanctions imposed on it. As a result of the dollarisation the shops are full of everything that you could hope for. Two years ago you couldn't buy a loaf of bread, now you can choose from half dozen types. It has also become an expensive place to live. It seems that most Zimbabweans do not have much concept of how much a dollar is actually worth. To get my mum hooked up with broadband for example, there was a US$1100.00 set up fee. We stayed with dial up after that bit of information. On the back of this information came the news that civil servants and domestic helpers earn about $100.00 a month. So no changes there either, the rich are doing well and the poor earn next to nothing. But then in context a lot more than they did two or three years ago. Perhaps my most poignant observation was how beautiful Zimbabwe is. Living in the UK I am always quick to point out how stunning our country is. Once you leave though the words become a little hollow, after all every country has it's respective merits. Being back there and having spent a year travelling through Asia I realised how much truth there is in those words though. A seemingly massive stash of diamonds has just been discovered in Zimbabwe which ironically is maybe one of the worst things that could happen at this stage. The discovery suggests corruption, army and police brutalization and political regression. I hope I am wrong.

For all of the trials and tribulations back home we were sad to leave. And for now at least, the party's over. I am currently going through something like 50 DVD's of camera raw files looking at and compiling some of the images that we captured along the way. I am on India at the moment and reliving our time in that massive and diverse country. Thank the heavens above for Lightroom. The selected images from each country will make there way into a book of some sort at some stage. But for now, thanks for following our travels and take it easy. We know you will.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Brass monkeys

Sure looks like fun, can't wait to get back. Honestly.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


“Happy Christmas by the way.” I looked across at Nipun, trying to adjust the straps of my backpack which seemed to be far heavier on one shoulder than the other, a common annoyance. It was about 5.30am, an hour before sunrise and we were both stiff and heavy from a bad nights rest on an overnight bus between Hiroshima and Kyoto. Adjusting my pack so that it now seemed heavier on the other shoulder I replied curtly, “It’s not until tomorrow. It’s Christmas eve today.”
“No it’s not. Happy Christmas.”
I looked at my watch, startled. Indeed she was right. My tetchiness relaxed a little. It was Christmas day! Not that there was any turkey and roasted potatoes to be had, but still. Maybe the reason the backpack felt so wretchedly heavy was that Santa had filled it up whilst I was not sleeping on the bus I mused. He must of snuck in whilst we half-lay there, eyes tightly shut, sleep gelling the lids closed in spite of our inability to drift off further than the cold window pane. But the daydream was short. We were in Kyoto, trying to figure of the easiest way of deciphering a metro ticketing machine that seemed to be annotated entirely Japanese. True, the prices were in Roman numerals, but other than that it was all pretty meaningless. “Sumi ma san,” (“Excuse me please”) I winced in my far from perfect Japanese to two teenage girls dressed in identical soft pink fluffy outfits with Hello Kitty shoulder bags. “How do we get here?” I pointed at our station on the metro map futilely. The girls faltered at the sight of the desperate, unkempt and red eyed Gajin (foreigner) in front of them. Nipun took over. The girls English was almost as non-existent as our Japanese, but after a few minutes of confused laughter, raised eyebrows and exaggerated gesturing we were on our way. Generally the Japanese are immensely helpful, embarrassingly so at times. They will try and help you even if they have no idea of where you need to be. It is touching, but also time consuming. Then somehow you need to extricate yourself from the situation without being rude. This was an easy one though, the girls in their pink shorts, stockings and fur topped boots deciphered the map and we made our way to the platform.

Upon arriving at our station we made our way into the soft light of the pre-dawn morning and began to look for our hotel. The directions we had were rubbish, we knew our hotel was nearby but still managed to walk around for half an hour before we found it; ironically it was almost directly opposite the subway station exit. Using up some loyalty points we had managed to arrange a very plush hotel for the first couple of nights, overlooking Nijo Castle. Kimono clad attendants swished efficiently through the reception area, looking dubiously at the contrast of our battered backpacks and slept-in clothes against the backdrop of marble floors and ornate, polished wood furniture. “Check in time is only at three o’clock Sir,” the concierge smugly remarked when we announced our arrival. We dumped our bags and went wandering. We started off with the four kilometre walk around the castle moat and then, once the castle had opened up for the day, we went into the grounds. Nijo Castle was originally built in 1603 at the instigation of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate (military government to you and I). Like all good despots he ordered all the feudal lords beneath him to construct him a castle that was then extended over sucessive years. Today (in spite of fires caused by lightning and latterly an uncontrolled conflagration that swept through Kyoto in 1788), the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The rambling complex is massive and includes the famous Ninomaru Palace. A large part of the palace’s fame is down to it’s Uguisu-bari, or Nightingale floor. The wooden floor boards throughout the building have been constructed in such a way that when anyone walks across them they make a birdlike squeaking, hence sending out the alarm to the bodyguards in the various chambers throughout the palace. Paranoid? Certainly not our Tokugawa. The preservation of the place is wonderful, the palace is a maze of inter-leading rooms with sliding wooden doors and hand painted screens preserved from days long passed. The paintings are over 3000 in number, some of which date back to the 1700’s. Outside the palace are carefully tended gardens, an inner moat and outer moat and a second palace.

In stark contrast to the elegant and simple Shoin-zukuri architecture of the Samurai, we went for lunch at Kyoto Station. The station is home to an ultra modern complex called the Cube, fifteen floors of restaurants and boutiques that cater for every whim. The architecture is indescribably slick, with a large expanse of open air space that consists of stairs and escalators that ascend up to the 15 floor observatory point. We discovered that it easy to lost in here, every corridor seems to take you back to the astonishing view of Kyoto Tower. What was becoming very clear as we travelled around Kyoto was just how much there was to do. The city boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1600 Buddhist Temples and in excess of 400 Shinto Shrines. And we had five days. In that time we made a decent stab at covering as much ground as possible. We did many of the obvious choices such as the district of Ginza which is renowned for it’s Geisha’s. I thought I saw one, laboured over the obligatory photos and then found out that she was actually a tourist from Canada. The photos are good (as in enough) though so maybe I’ll just keep quiet on that one. Whilst Ginza is supposedly best visited in the evening when the Geisha’s are out, I found it really rewarding to visit there very early in the morning, when most people were still asleep. The streets are practically abandoned and we spent a few hours exploring cobble roads and Shinmonzen Minami-dori, “arguably the most beautiful street in all of Asia,” if you believe the hype in the Lonely Planet. It is a very tranquil and beautiful place, but I was a little under whelmed after reading such an exuberant write up. To be fair, it is the middle of winter here and I imagine that in spring and autumn it must be magnificent.

Among the other temples we visited were Fushimi - Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine best known for it’s thousands of Torii’s (vermillion gateways that mark the entrance to a Shinto Shrine) and dozens of stone foxes. The Shrine is dedicated to the gods of rice and sake, whilst the fox is the messenger of Inari, the God of cereal grains. Another highlight was the village and shrines of Arashiyama, which lie at the base of Kyoto’s western mountain range. To recount all the temples we saw would make for tedious reading and writing, suffice to say that with a year in Kyoto, there would still be much that was missed. After our two days of posh accommodation we moved into an 8 bed dorm and had our first and last experience of shared rooms. It is amusing how inconsiderate fellow travellers can be to each other (travelling is a purely selfish and indulgent occupation after all) and after a couple of nights of tripping over other peoples water bottles and the stale morning air created by sixteen slumbering lungs we were glad to be going again. We were also a little sad though, Kyoto has slipped by so quickly and Tokyo lay before us. It is our last destination. Ten months of travel has gone by since we left London. In some ways it doesn’t even feel like ten days.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Fukuoaka Five: Images from Fukuoka City

1) Prayer Tablets at Kusihida Shrine. Most of them are in Japanese and this one took me by surprise.

2 (Above): Nihon-teien Japanese Garden. Stone, water and sand all combine in these beautiful gardens which appear to have been effortlessly sculpted. The gardens are elegant and tranquil, especially on a late winters afternoon when you are the only one daft enough to be out in the cold.

3: A hundred metres away from the ultra modern Canal City complex lie a handful of traditional style Yatai (food stalls). After pulling back the plastic sheeting and taking a seat on the wooden benches you can savour ramen and kebabs, with sake or beer optional.

4: Stone Basin, Kushida Shrine. The stone basins are an integral part of any shrine and serve for drinking water and to wash hands. They are often ornate and very beautiful. Sometimes the beauty is in their very simplicity.

5 (Below): Street art in Fukuoka near Hakata Station. Fukuoka is a city where the new and old intermingle effortlessly. Indeed the city was historically two towns that were then joined, the posh bit was Fukuoka castle town, and the cheap seats were found in Hakata. The city is now cosmopolitan in parts and quaint in others. From behind a shrine the sun will glint off a glass fronted office complex. It is also a colourful town where animation can be found on random street corners.

Final Destination

“Konichiwa, Jonathan desu. Sake wa Kuda sai asa gaan.” Thus begins my tentative exploration of Japanese. It is phonetic by the way and no doubt any self respecting Japanese person would roll their eyes in exasperation at the abundant spelling mistakes. My pronunciation is worse still. But I can make myself understood. It means “Hello, my name is Jonathan and I like Sake.” After all it is the festive season here. And it is cold, runny nose, burning ear lobe cold. It is not so much the temperature as such, it is more a case of the Siberian winds that take you by surprise and cut through your clothes with the efficacy of a Stanley knife. And a hot sake is just the thing to make you feel that maybe it is not all bad.

We arrived in Japan about ten days ago and the time has flown. We had left Manila at about six o’clock in the morning, still half asleep and vaguely aware that a hangover was in the post after a night out with Zeena, Shiela and Anthony. I slept the entire flight which is unusual for me, and then arrived in Tokyo where we found that it was twenty five odd degrees colder than we have been used to for the last ten months. Though expected the shock was nasty. NASTY. I was instantly reminded of how much I dislike being cold. We made our way through customs and immigration and then found a shuttle bus to the hotel near the airport as were flying again the next day, this time further South to Fukuoka. We munched McDonalds (a Teriyaki burger that was not bad actually, in spite of my abhorrence for Ronald McDonald and the monstrosity that he has spawned) and spent an uneventful first night in Japan. Narita Airport, the gateway to Tokyo, is commonly cited as the worlds most hated airport on account of it’s distance from the city itself and the expense involved in getting into town. As such we had a lazy day, which once in a while is a really refreshing change from the continual packing and unpacking of bags.

Most people coming to Japan for a short visit will usually purchase a Japan Rail Pass that allows unlimited travel on the supernumary trains that dissect the country, including the speed of light shinkansen bullet trains. Whilst these tickets are generally acknowledged as being good value for money, they are expensive. For Nipun and I they would have been about £600 expensive so after much pontificating we decided to use up air miles and fly along the longer routes that we had and catch over night buses for other trips. It would have been great to do the bullet train, but the costs involved are a real budget breaker. We arrived in Fukuoka the following evening, found a place to stay (the excellent Khoa San guest house) and then went out for dinner. In other words we went to the local 7 Eleven where the pre packaged meals are cheap and actually pretty good. These have almost become a staple for us during our time in Japan, whether they be from the Daily Yakamaza, Lawsons or 7 Eleven. Back in the common area of the guest house we met Satoshi, a Japanese thirty year old who was doing a bit of travelling for the next few days. We were chatting away and asking him questions when suddenly he gave one of his inimitable high pitched laughs and said “Sorry, I am really drunk.” He turned out to be good fun, and carried a shoulder bag around that seemed to produce an infinite amount of little sake bottles. He was not by any means a heavy drinker, but in his own words, “I’m on holiday so it’s ok.” Followed by his high pitched laugh. Satoshi became our companion the next day as we dragged him around Fukuoka looking at the sights.

We started off the day at the Robo Square, a building dedicated (as the name would suggest) to showcasing robotic technology. Most of the robots on display are pretty small - dogs and dinosaurs that can be petted and made to chase after a ball. The application of these was really interesting, largely the pets are given to people in old peoples homes where the aged can have a virtual pet that can be looked after, without any of the tedious tasks and manual labour involved. It sounds crazy, but seeing the robots and the attention to detail it makes sense. You could imagine getting attached to, say a little green dinosaur with big blue eyes that demands attention and reacts affectionately to being stroked and tickled. The animals were actually very cute, but then again if I gave my grandmother a virtual pet for Christmas I think she would strike me with it. She would certainly be more concerned for my mental health than hers. Back on the bus we carried on around Fukuoka, a town that is ultra modern in places and yet is home to temples and gardens that would not be out of place in Kyoto. One of the highlights of the day was indeed a trip to Nihon-teien (a Japanese garden) at Satoshi‘s instigation. Despite the biting cold and the fact that the trees had lost all their leaves the garden was starkly beautiful, the elements of rocks and water and sand all being fused together to create a place of great tranquillity. We walked around the town a bit, shopped for new winter jackets and went to a temple close to town. We finished off the day in a wholly Japanese bar where Satoshi became our translator, ordering snacks of barbequed skewers and hot sake with great avidity. We spent a few more days in Fukuoka, mainly visiting the shrines and temples and marvelling at the detail that goes into these stunning structures. In contrast to the more traditional side of things we visited Canal City, an uber-modern six storey complex built around an artificial canal that houses a theatre, shopping mall, hotels and cinemas. It is very slick and neoteric, especially at dusk when the neon lights begin to sparkle and the yatai (food stalls) begin to open up for the evening. I was not at all surprised when I read many days later that “nationally the city is known for it’s Hakata-bijin (beautiful women).” The women in Fukuoka were indeed beautiful, and immaculately dressed too. It made me wonder if there was such a term as “high maintenance bijin” in those parts.

From Fukuoka we jumped on a night bus to Hiroshima. The bus journey was truly painless, there was lots of space to stretch out and at one stage I seem to remember waking up and the bus had come to a stand still. The engine had been turned off which in turn made me wonder if the driver was also taking advantage of the comfy facilities. Nonetheless we arrived in Hiroshima at the specified time and trundled out into the pre-dawn darkness of Hiroshima at 5.30am. We ambled through the streets and found our guest house where we collapsed onto a couch in the common area for a couple of hours before the early risers came in. We then set off ourselves, met Satoshi again as he had left all his parcels behind in Fukuoka by mistake. We picked them up for him and when we met again he effusively thanked us and then pressed a bottle of sake into my hand. I had it on New Years eve, it was delicious. Thank you mate. After much prevaricating we went to the Peace Memorial Museum for the day. My heart went out to Satoshi. We love museums and are especially slow to make our way through them. For Satoshi, well, there was some interest, but I did catch him having forty winks in a corner at one stage. He smiled sheepishly and agreed that a cup of coffee would most certainly hit the spot.
The museum is excellent, and of course by the time you leave you are depressed, angry and just down right incredulous that there are still morons who are out there manufacturing nuclear bombs and testing them. It beggars belief. Anyone who walks through the museum cannot help but be shocked and deeply saddened by what they see. We all know Japan was not exactly fair, angelic or vaguely concerned about the welfare of POW’s during WWII. However the museum and indeed the Memorial Park as a whole make the event more human, more accessible and more than just an historical abstraction. Were the Japanese more sinned against than sinning? When you consider that no warning was given to evacuate the cities that were then decimated, maybe they were. There is some evidence that Japan had been developing atomic technology themselves though and would they have behaved any differently from the allies? I personally think not. Ironically the order had been given to knock down wooden buildings and to create fire breaks in Hiroshima in case of any allied bombings. 70% of the city and 80 000 people were then wiped out by one bomb, affectionately called “Little Boy” and dropped by an aircraft named after the pilot’s mother. There is some seriously warped thinking going on in all of that. I'll leave out the swear words, but I am sure you get the drift as to what I may be thinking here.

Naturally Hiroshima will always be remembered as the first city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. It’s place in history is assured by this horrific event. Based on this I expected it to be a really depressing place. If truth be known though I really liked Hiroshima. The Peace Memorial Park and the conservation of the A Bomb Dome (the building above which the atomic bomb was exploded at 8.15am on the 6th August 1945 and whose shell still miraculously stands) is a sombre but immensely peaceful place. Further afield the city itself is modern and feels prosperous. We were told that a couple of days would be more than enough in Hiroshima, but if truth be known I wish we had stayed a whole lot longer. As it is I failed to make to the much touted Miyajima Island, deciding to stay in Hiroshima and explore for our last day there. Nipun did make it though and from her reports I am furious that I missed it. Should have listened to my wife I guess.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Inilog, Biya and Christo.

Farewell Philippines and hello Japan, but before we go, thanks for the memories. Oh, and the culture shock too. Herewith a brief guide to cock fighting.

1: Ok if animal welfare is your thing then look away because things here are going to get ugly. We're starting off with cock fighting. Nope, that is not two men you dislike settling their differences over a match of fisticuffs. No siree, this here is one of the national obsessions. First up, you're gonna need a cock. Ignore the obvious pun, it gets tiresome. Next up you will need to put your your erm, rooster, on a diet of vitamins and top grade feed and then exercise him regularly. That will include sparring sessions, with a leather glove and then later, with your other cockerels if you have any. This routine will go on for about a year. You will then take your fattened bird to the cock ring pit one Sunday and pit him against another. Your cockerel will be a thing of great beauty by the time it makes it into the ring; it's plumage proud and pristine. And to be fair this bird will be like a cherished pet to you. After all, you have fed it, exercised it, invested in it and groomed it for a year or so. But then again, it might just win the battle you are about to pitch it into. And if it wins, then you're gonna have a whole lot of cash in your pocket. And if it loses, well then the winner takes all. Including your dead bird which will go on the grill quicker than you can say "Bon appetite."

2: So we're in the ring now. Next up you'll need to strap a curved blade onto the left leg of your cockerel. The blade is about two inches (or 50mm if you prefer) long, and it will be sharp enough to carve to a chicken. Literally. Once you get your bird into the ring you and the other breeder will hold your roosters at chest height and get them to go at each other for a bit. Rile them up. Make 'em angry. And vicious. This is done to create a bit of blood lust and crowd will go wild. They'll be betting like crazy. And the roosters will spit feathers. The anticipation of the fight will grow with every feather that comes away on each peck. All the while the Christo (so called because of the way he stands with his arms outstretched in either direction whilst he registers the bets) will be taking wagers from every direction. And the amazing thing is that none of these bets will be written down, they will all be remembered. Every bet, every denomination, every punter's face lest he try and shuffle out the back door if things are going badly. The bets will be placed on either Inilog or Biya. For reference, Biya is the favourite (easy to remember: Beer is Best) and attracts odds of 1:1. Inilog pays a bit better, but not that much better.

3: After the bets are in it is time for a fight. It is a bit like watching The Highlander really. You know that "There can be only one," and you also know that there will be a whole lot of blades and blood. It is brutal. It is cruel. Throw some money in and it is addictive too. The best seats in the stadium are reserved for high rollers. Sometimes they will wager a million piso or more. That's more than GBP10 000.00. Admittedly that is not an every match occurrence by any means. But it can happen. It is big business.

4: But back to the business in the ring. The average match will last about two or three minutes. Sometimes they are quicker, sometimes longer. It is usually not long at all before one of the birds gets the upper hand though. There is a referee present (Coyme's Decision is Final reads the sign, I thought it would be more appropriate to change the "Coyme" to "Death's" myself) and when it looks like the end is nigh for one of the birds the ref will lift both birds up and get them to attack each other again. Invariably the losing bird will be slowly pecked to a bloodied mess before making its way to the kitchen. At the end of the match a final and discrete stab to the heart will be administered to the losing bird with the blade attached to it's leg. We watched the cock fighting in Dumaguete. In the three hours or so were there there must have been about thirty matches or so. We arrived late and left early. According to one local we spoke to, each Sunday there will about 100 matches in that one arena, and every town has one. That is a whole lot of chicken.

5: It is pretty strange witnessing all this at first. The adrenaline the air, the Christo taking bets, the money being exchanged and the gore of the fights. And then there is the fate of the roosters. The term "Nice guys finish last" takes on a whole new meaning. If they are lucky they may die quickly. If they are unlucky they might win and then die from their wounds later, or be blinded in the fight, or indeed even live to fight another day. One cab driver told us he had a rooster that had won four fights, he was grooming it for it's fifth. As for the losing trainer, he accepts his fate dutifully. There is no acrimony or animosity. The cadaver of the losing chicken goes to the winning trainer. Outside on the street the smell of a barbecue wafts gently into the arena. Did we bet? Of course. How much? So little that no one wanted to take our bets, hey, we're travelling. Is it addictive? Kind of yes. But personally the cruelty factor overrides it all for me. I like chickens. Mostly with chilli and a bit of lime, but preferably without the excess adrenaline.

El Nido, Manila

In a whirl and a flash our time in the Philippines has been and gone. Contrary to all the warnings received we did not get mugged, kidnapped, murdered, drowned in a typhoon or incinerated by a volcano. As a friend remarked by email: “You can’t say that the Philippines is boring, that’s for sure.” Instead of certain death, what we did we discover was unparalleled hospitality and landscapes of dazzling natural beauty. Indeed the regrets we share about our time in the Philippines merely stem to the limited time that we had there, one month was clearly not enough. There were so many places that we did not make it to that we would like to have visited, Sagada and Vigan spring to mind a little higher than the others, alas they will need to wait until next time... On reflection it is obvious that Philippines was not the easiest country to backpack, it undoubtedly required a bit more effort and planning than other places we have been; but maybe this is what made it so special. There was a sense of reward in arriving somewhere new, and nowhere could this have been truer than in El Nido.

El Nido sits at the northern tip of the island of Palawan. It is accessed either directly by it’s small airport (soon to be a big airport) which, for now at least, is the more expensive way of getting there. Alternatively you can make your way to Peuto Princessa which is about halfway down the island, and from there your choices are to catch an early morning local bus or an “air conditioned” mini van. Either way a drive of about six hours on dodgy roads awaits. The bus is rickety and the mini vans not much better, so there is not much to choose between the two really. We took the latter of the options due to our arrival time in Palawan, having set out from Cebu airport earlier in the day. It was an eventful day from the outset. The taxi drivers in the Philippines are generally extremely affable and full of good humour.

The drive to Cebu Airport had been no exception and our cabbie, Julian, was an absolute hoot. Julian started off the conversation by asking where we from and then boasting of his dual citizenship. He was, he said, a citizen of the Philippines and a Senior citizen. In twenty garrulous minutes the conversation took in food, politics (there are elections here next year), Filipino family planning (or the lack thereof) and inevitably cock fighting. Whilst cock fighting seems to occupy the status of a national religion here, karaoke seems to be much like the national sport. So it did not seem too unusual when once we were on our flight a Christmas carol competition was announced. Within minutes three contestants had lined up in the aisle of the aircraft to sing a carol of choice to their somewhat bemused fellow passengers. The winner in our books was a little old lady who beamed at the passengers whilst singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in short sharp bursts before hollering “Happy Christmas Everyone” and scuttling back to her seat. It beat the pants off the serious efforts of her rivals.

We arrived in Peuto Princessa at about ten thirty with the daunting and dusty six hour drive ahead of us. We made our way to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town, crammed ourselves into a van and then set off through the undulating verdant hills that surround the town. After about half an hour the air conditioning gave up the ghost and it became apparent that the AC actually took the form of open windows. This was nothing new it would appear. In spite of this the drive was pleasant; soon the landscape changed and gave way to a coastal road that offered views of deserted beaches and a sun speckled, crystal blue sea. The road for the first couple of hours was pretty good really, and then, after a lunch of chicken and rice at a road side stall the tar abruptly gave way to dirt.

All in all we seemed to be making fairly good time, and then, on a bumpy stretch of dust and pebbles, the van gave the kind of sound that defiantly says: “I am going no further.” You could almost hear it wave two fingers at us. We piled out the vehicle and made our way to the rear left hand wheel to discover that one of the springs in the suspension had snapped. And so started the long process of trying to fix the suspension system with nothing more than lengths of rope and a small hydraulic jack. Around us, as far as the eye could see, were goats and sheep and the occasional smiling villager. There was no mobile network available. The van was jacked up, then propped on rocks whilst the jack was then used to force the broken spring back up and into it‘s usual position. The errant springs were then lashed together with rope, MacGyver would have beamed with appreciation. He would have sighed contentedly and cracker open a beer. It was torturously slow progress and two hours later, as the sun set for the day, we were back on our way.

In the interim we had met Antonio and Carlos, locals who were going to check out El Nido in advance of a joint family holiday. In typical Filipino style they were not remotely fazed by the break down. They continued to smile, laugh, joke and whistle whilst the van was fixed. They had a carefree stoicism that is typical in the Philippines. “When things go badly, we smile,“ they told me proudly. “After all, there is not much point in getting stressed out, is there?” Back in the van we had travelled about 500 metres when there was another groan from the suspension and it was time to stop again. The knot had slipped, but it had only been a matter of time. The sun had by now completely disappeared. Antonio and Carlos smiled like happy Buddha's. The whistled. The rest of us fumed. The inevitable “If this was Europe… “ was muttered. It began to look very much like that we may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere. A villager approached from a roadside settlement and then offered us accommodation for the night in his small out housing building. We accepted. He then offered to make us rice and bought us drinking water whilst Antonio and I went off to the local Sari Sari store and bought every can of corned beef and sardines that they had. Predictably Antonio refused to accept any money from me, “You are in Philippines, maybe when we see you in London you will help us.” I did not set him straight about Londoners, it seemed that now might not be the time. Rather I argued futilely for a few minutes and then graciously accepted that this was the way it would be. Back at the shack that was to be our home rice was served, the sardines were turned into a curry and I tucked into a local bottle of rum. I had it bought it to share out with the other passengers but they were not much fun sensible, so it fell to me to dispose of the wicked stuff. Later that evening the very same bottle combined with sleep deprivation sent me stumbling into an open drain, but that will be another story for another day. Above us was a star filled night, the kind of stars that you can only see in the absolute middle of nowhere, in places where electricity has not reached. That includes Harare most of the time by the way. But the whole time my prevailing thought was the generosity of the people around us. The villagers housing us for the night were relatively poor country folk. We gave them a bit of cash, but really, even if we had had no money they would still have helped. True, Antonio and Carlos were well heeled Filipinos, but then again I do not know many people who would feed a mini van full of strangers and expect no recompense or reciprocation for it whatsoever.

Behind the scenes the driver of the van had proved that he was a veritable thaumaturge and somehow managed to order a spare part for the vehicle. Where this came from I have no idea, but he and his faithful conductor had been working like Trojans to mend the suspension and at around 11 pm they achieved the impossible. We piled back into the van and continued on our way. In some ways it was a crazy decision, it was pitch black with bad roads and every likelihood of stray animals on the road. Nonetheless we went on with the journey and reached El Nido at an eye rubbing 3.00 am. We found accommodation in guesthouse close to the beach and then went to sleep. The next morning when we went out to the verandah, the full beauty of El Nido became apparent. We spent the day snorkelling at a nearby island, watched the sunset behind dramatic limestone karsts dropped haphazardly into an ocean of multifarious blues and returned to El Nido for an evening by the sea. I spent the next three days diving, including a tunnel dive and a swim with thousands of yellow snappers. The islands and lagoons around El Nido are spectacular, as were diving I did not have my camera with me and felt like my opposing thumbs had been taken away from me. By night we ate on the beach, drank happy hour beers and met up with friends that had made in Malaysia. Before long we were on the road back to Peuto Princessa, this time by bus. The journey was dusty and hot, but the bus infinitely more reliable than the van.

We spent a night in Peuto Princessa and then flew back to Manila, ran around the historical old town city of Intramuros and then met our friends in the city for one last night out. We drank until the early morning in a trendy bar in Malate and then said our farewells. Before we could depart farewell gifts were thrust into our hands which was immensely touching and came as a complete surprise, but then not that surprising when we think back to the continual generosity we were shown throughout our time in the Philippines. At the beginning of our journey through this country Anthony had confidently predicted, “You will not regret coming here.” And how right he was.